Lukas Westberg shrugged when asked if he was nervous about shaving his head bald in front of a couple hundred classmates.
Then he nodded “yes.”
The Holly Grove Middle School seventh-grader had shoulder-length hair when he got to school that morning. A short time later, he looked like a different person with his head newly shorn.
Earlier this month, Lukas and more than 70 students and teachers cut their hair for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization that supports childhood cancer research. Similar head-shaving and hair-cutting events were held throughout the region.
This was the fifth year the school has held the fundraiser. In previous years, the school only allowed teachers and staff to shave their heads.
This year, they opened it up to students, and the 63 students and 10 staff members raised close to $35,000 – nearly as much as they did the previous four years combined.
The students and staff had a personal connection. Two Holly Grove students, named Devin and Melanie, are battling cancer, and many of those cutting their hair or going bald know them. (The school asked that the students’ last names not be published.)
It was the second time seventh-grade Cayleigh Nelson had cut her hair to donate it to make a wig. This time, she was thinking of her friend, Devin.
“I just felt like I had long hair, but kids with cancer don’t have any hair, so I should donate it,” said Cayleigh, 13, carrying 8 inches of her former ponytail in a plastic bag.
Organizers later announced to loud applause that Devin wasn’t able to attend the event because he was in surgery. Doctors were removing the port that had been used to give him chemotherapy drugs, a positive sign that he was nearly finished defeating cancer.
Lukas wore a Swedish soccer team jersey for his favorite player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the towering Swedish striker who is known for his own long hair. Channeling some of his hero’s Samsonesque strength seemed to work as his hair was cut.
His classmates cheered and squealed as his long hair fell in clumps to the floor. Within just a few minutes he was done, and the next student walked up to the makeshift barber shop on the gym floor.
Girls flashed nervous smiles and reacted in only half-exaggerated horror when they had their pony tails clipped off to be donated.
Boys inevitably got the silliest hair cuts possible on the way to going totally bald.
Collin Butler, for instance, had vertical stripes shaved into his head. And Wesley Ferguson had the luck of turning 13 that day, Friday the 13th, so his present was having his hair shaved into sloppy patches first.
Some students were used to having short hair. Others weren’t but went all-in anyway.
A sixth-grade girl, Anders Bullock, displayed no typical middle school concerns and went completely bald.
Contributing to a cause
Jason Bolchak, the teacher who raised the most money with more than $1,600, is the school’s St. Baldrick’s organizer. He said in an email he was proud of the students, and other teachers agreed.
“The kids are so willing to donate, I felt like I should do something,” said Aaron Crowell, a special education teacher who shaved his head and contributed $125 to the cause, according to the fundraiser website.
A few teachers who already are bald got lots of laughs “shaving” their heads and joking about how long they had been growing out their hair just for the event. But they earned the right to make a few jokes.
Dave Priest and Darren Segool were part of the group of teachers – and its only male members – who raised the most money as a team. The teachers and their students brought in more than $7,100.
The individual student who raised the most, though, wasn’t a Holly Grove student. Carolina Eddy, an eighth-grader from Apex Middle School, asked permission to join in Holly Grove’s efforts. She raised more than $1,800.
Patrick Koenig, a lanky eighth-grader who helped put the event together, said it was rewarding to see fellow students supporting those with cancer and becoming more aware of the disease. His cousin was diagnosed with cancer as a newborn, Patrick said, and several other relatives also have suffered from it.
His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was in second grade.
“She’s been surviving about six years now, which is good,” he said. “But it’s been a tough time.”
For other students, like Levi French, cancer isn’t an everyday reality. But he still shaved his head and raised $415.
“I’ve heard about childhood cancer on TV, and I just wanted to help out,” he said, adding, “I never really thought about it that much until this came up.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran